“Keep it simple.”
Is there a more overused term in the history of any sport ever created? Hockey players say it like it’s a mantra and for the Pittsburgh Penguins, it should be.
Since Game 2, and really last year, it has been no secret that the Penguins’ biggest problem in the playoffs has been puck management in the defensive end. Allegedly, they correct that problem in the regular season. That is, until the playoffs started. Now it’s back to blind passes, bad decisions, and awful turnovers leading to goals for the opposition.
It haunted the Penguins in Games 2, 3, and 4 and they are fortunate the series is tied at two a piece. Heading into Game 5, with a new goaltender between the pipes, the Penguins MUST change if they want a shot at the second round. The players and coaches know it as they’ve talked about the problem ad nauseum.
“There’s a lot of us on the ice that create turnovers that lead to odd-man rushes and shots on net. … We have to be better in front of our goalie,” said Chris Kunitz when addressing the media over the goalie switch to Tomas Vokoun. (credit: Pittsburgh Post Gazette)
The problem is, the Penguins have been saying this for the past three games and every step forward seems like two steps back. The Penguins finally outshot the Islanders in Game 4 but lost the game due to inexcusable turnovers in their own end. Through all the talk about being better defensively and being smarter with the puck, the Penguins are still shooting themselves in the foot by trying to do too much to get the puck out of their own end.
When I watch other series in these playoffs, I see every team supporting the puck carrier out of his own end. The teams that are winning are the best at getting the puck and forcing it into the offensive zone. Because, see, if the puck is not in your end the whole game, it’s hard for the other team to score.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
It should be that simple for the Penguins. The truth is, when the Penguins get the puck at center ice, all the pressure goes on New York to make a play. And with players like Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, the offensive talent should be a huge mismatch for the boys in blue and orange. The Islanders do have some scoring threats, mainly John Tavares who is an MVP candidate this season, but they sorely lack the depth the Penguins possess. The difference is, the Islanders are able to pressure using their speed and hammer away in the offensive zone until the Penguins turn the puck over and reveal a golden opportunity.
When the puck is in the neutral zone, the Penguins are on the advantage. When you look at the Penguins’ goals in Game 4, how many of them came off the rush? For that matter, how many times have the Penguins quickly responded from an Islanders goal or scored less than a minute after a neutral zone face off?
The formula for victory is right in front of the Pittsburgh Penguins: keep it simple in your own zone. Make the safe play instead of trying to hit the home run. If there’s room to skate with the puck, skate. If there’s an open man for an outlet, use him instead of the player hovering at center ice where you may have a 50/50 shot to get him the puck.
The Penguins have spent $70 million dollars this season with 44.6 million going to the top nine forwards in the lineup. Once they get the puck they can use their skill and athleticism to terrorize Evgeni Nabokov. But they can’t score from their own end and forcing high-risk plays wont work against a speedy, aggressive team like the Islanders. The only way to counter their aggressiveness is to stay calm with the puck and make the easy plays on the breakout.
Keep it simple.